teacher and students wood block.jpg
School teacher in science class with pupils
Stephen C. Meyer Philosopher of Science
The Latest

Evidence, Not Motive, Weighs in Favor of Giving Schoolchildren All Sides

Published in The Columbus Dispatch

Cynical lawyers have a maxim: When you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. When you have the law on your side, argue the law. When neither is on your side, question the motives of the opposition.

The latter seems to be the strategy of die-hard defenders of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, now that the State Board of Education in Ohio agreed to allow local districts to bring critical analysis of Darwin’s ideas into classrooms.

Case in point: A few weeks ago in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, Case Western Reserve University physicist Lawrence Krauss attacked the board’s decision by linking it to a vast conspiracy of scientists who favor the theory of intelligent design. Design is dangerous, Krauss implied, because the scientists who favor it are religiously motivated. But Krauss’ attack and his conspiracy theory are irrelevant to assessing the state board’s policies. It’s not what motivates a scientist’s theory that determines accuracy; it’s evidence.

Consider a parallel example: Noted Darwinist Richard Dawkins has praised Darwin’s theory because it allows him “to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Does this scientist’s anti-religious motive disqualify Darwinian evolution from consideration as a scientific theory? Obviously not. The same should apply when considering design.

The leading advocate of intelligent design, Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, has marshaled some intriguing evidence: the miniature motors and complex circuits in cells.

But Krauss did not argue with Behe’s evidence; he questioned the motives of Behe’s associates. Krauss claims to speak for science in Ohio. Yet he stoops to some very unscientific and fallacious forms of argument.

Krauss also distracts attention from the real issue. The state board has acknowledged that local teachers and school boards already have the freedom to decide whether to discuss the theory of intelligent design. But apart from that, the board did not address the subject. The board does not require students to learn about the theory of intelligent design in the new science standards. Nor will students be tested on the theory. How, then, are the motives of scientists who favor intelligent design at all relevant?

The new standards do require students to know about evolution and why “scientists today continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.” This is a good policy, one that has the facts and the law on its side.

First, the facts: Many biologists question aspects of evolutionary theory because many of the main lines of evidence for evolutionary theory no longer hold up. German biologist Ernst Haeckel’s famous embryo drawings long were thought to show that all vertebrates share a common ancestry. But biologists now know that these diagrams are inaccurate. Darwin’s theory asserts that all living forms evolved gradually from a common ancestor. But fossil evidence shows the geologically sudden appearance of new animal forms in the Cambrian period. Biologists know about these problems.

The state board wisely has required students to know about some of these well-known problems when they learn about evolutionary theory. That’s just good science education. Students have a right to know.

Law also supports the board’s decision. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Edwards vs. Aguillard that state legislatures could require the teaching of “scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories.” Last year, in the report language of the new federal education act, Congress expressed its support for greater openness in science instruction, citing biological evolution as the key example.

The state board’s decision is very popular with the public. Knowing this, opponents argue that majority opinion does not matter in science. They are right. In science, it’s evidence that decides questions. But, ironically, that is an argument for allowing students to know all the evidence, not just the evidence that supports the view of the majority of scientists. Because evidence, and not the majority opinion of scientists, is the ultimate authority in science, students need to learn to analyze evidence critically, not just to accept an assumed consensus.

On the other hand, the majority does decide public-policy questions. And, according to many public-opinion polls, an overwhelming majority of Ohio voters support the policy of telling students about scientific critiques of Darwinian evolution. Others have complained that evolution has been unfairly singled out in these standards. Why not insist that students critically analyze other theories and ideas?

First, there is now more scientific disagreement about Darwinian evolution than about other scientific theories.

Second, evolution, more than other scientific theories, has been taught dogmatically. Scientific critics, as we have seen, are routinely stigmatized as religiously motivated. Fortunately, the State Board of Education’s decision will make it more difficult to stigmatize teachers who present the evidence for and against evolutionary theory.